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Jacob Lawrence Portrait

Jacob Lawrence Portrait

Jacob Lawrence

Atlantic City, New Jersey 1917

Seattle, Washington 2000

Active in:

  • New York, New York
  • Seattle, Washington

Photo Caption:
Jacob Lawrence, Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum J0001840

Photo Caption:
Originally photographed by Geoffery Clements. Image is courtesy of the American Federation of Arts records, 1895-1993 in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Luce Artist Quote

"My work is abstract in the sense of having been designed and composed, but it is not abstract in the sense of having no human content . . . [I] want to communicate. I want the idea to strike right away." -- Lawrence, 1945 interview, quoted in Wheat, Jacob Lawrence, American Painter, 1986


Painter. A social realist, Lawrence documented the African American experience in several series devoted to Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, life in Harlem, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was one of the first nationally recognized African American artists.

Joan Stahl American Artists in Photographic Portraits from the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection (Washington, D.C. and Mineola, New York: National Museum of American Art and Dover Publications, Inc., 1995)

Additional Biographies

Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey after his parents had moved north from Virginia and South Carolina. Following another move to Easton, Pennsylvania, his parents separated and his mother moved with Lawrence and his brother and sister to Philadelphia. In 1927, unable to support them, she placed the children in foster homes until she was able to settle in Harlem with them three years later, when Lawrence was thirteen. His own rootless youth combined with his interest in African American history made the movement of fugitive slaves and freed black people an ongoing theme of his art.

Lawrence's art education began in New York when he designed masks in a school program in Harlem run by Charles Alston, with whom he continued to study while in high school and in WPA art workshops beginning in 1932. In Alston's studio during the 1930s, he met many of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as his future wife, the painter Gwendolyn Knight. According to Lawrence, the purpose of his social realist art was to narrate the history of African Americans and to lift them out of economic slavery. His use of the series format—devoted to subjects such as Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and "The Migration of the Negro"—represents his most direct effort to accomplish this goal.

William H. Truettner and Roger B. Stein, editors, with contributions by Dona Brown, Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Judith K. Maxwell, Stephen Nissenbaum, Bruce Robertson, Roger B. Stein, and William H. Truettner Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory (Washington, D.C.; New Haven, Conn; and London: National Museum of American Art with Yale University Press, 1999)